CHARLOTTETOWN - A hunter aboard a sealing vessel used a rifle to fire several shots into the sky Friday as a group of sealers and protesters clashed amid the ice floes on the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
The violent confrontation - the second in as many days - happened after three helicopters carrying anti-sealing activists and photographers landed near the boat, off the north coast of Prince Edward Island.
At first, about six sealers hurled verbal abuse at about a dozen protesters and observers, some of whom were members of the International Fund for Animal Welfare.
The protesters, who had observer permits that require them to keep at least 10 meters from the sealers, were then approached by at least one sealer who was swinging a short stick with a hook, otherwise known as a gaff.
At one point, a snowmobile carrying two sealers hurtled towards the activists and swung away at the last moment.
A seal hunter (right) pushes a member of the International Fund for Animal Welfare on an ice floe in the Gulf of St. Lawrence Friday April 1, 2005. (AP PHOTO/CP, Jonathan Hayward)
A shoving match ensued, several shots were fired from the boat, and the protesters retreated to their choppers.
No one appeared to be hurt and the RCMP said they had yet to receive any complaints.
"It was scary," said Canadian Press photographer Johnathan Hayward, who witnessed the tense confrontation.
"There were single shots being fired when we first got there," Hayward said afterwards.
"And then there was a burst of gunshots, like four or five. I looked up and there was this gentleman walking towards us with a rifle."
The International Fund for Animal Welfare issued a statement saying the altercation was also captured on videotape by an Italian television crew.
The animal welfare group said the sealers involved were crew members from the Cape Ashley, a fishing boat based in Port aux Choix, Nfld.
"One of the sealers fired warning shots from a rifle as the group moved to 150 meters away and then again at 50 meters away," the statement said.
"As the group moved closer, still more than 10 meters away, a sealer rushed up to them and began threatening a member of IFAW with a large hook and physically pushing him around."
The statement went on to allege that another member of the boat's crew hit an IFAW member with hakapik, a spiked club used to kill seals.
"This is what our supporters give us money to do, so it's our responsibility to go out there and document what's going on," IFAW spokesman Chris Cutter said in an interview from Charlottetown. "We'll be out there until the hunt ends."
On Thursday, the captain of the protest ship Farley Mowat said he saw one sealer attack a member of his crew on the ice.
Paul Watson, head of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, said he filed a complaint but the RCMP responded by arresting several members of his crew.
Sgt. Dave Thibeau, a spokesman for the RCMP, said that was wrong.
In fact, officers with the federal Fisheries Department arrested 11 of Watson's colleagues for allegedly violating Fisheries regulations that prohibit protesters from getting too close to sealers.
Watson later issued a statement confirming 19 members of his crew approached the sealing vessel. But he insisted they remained one half nautical mile away, as required by the regulations in the group's permit.
Ten of the Sea Shepherd protesters appeared Friday in provincial court in Charlottetown to face charges under the Fisheries Act. They were released on the condition they refrain from leaving Watson's boat unless it is in port.
The sealer involved in Thursday's scuffle, Rendell Genge of Anchor Point, Nfld., admitted he punched a protester, but he insisted he had been jumped by four other men and was just defending himself.
Sealers in the Gulf have a catch limit this season of 90,000 seals. During the first three days of the week-long hunt, just over 34,000 seals were killed.
However, the weather Friday was good, with bright sunshine, little wind and temperatures well above freezing.
About 70 boats were involved in the hunt when it started Tuesday.
More hunters will converge on the ice floes off the north coast of Newfoundland on April 12.
This spring marks the last season for a three-year federal plan that allowed sealers to harvest a total of 975,000 seals. The total allowable catch remaining for 2005 is nearly 320,000.
© Copyright 2005 Associated Press